Population Stabilization and the Modern Environmental Movement

The following is based on an article, "The Environmental Movement’s Retreat from Advocating US Population Stabilization (1970-1998) " which appeared in a winter 2000 special issue of the Journal of Policy History, Vol. 12, No. 1, dedicated to environmental politics and policy from the 1960s to the 1990s (Pennsylvania State University Press).

Around 1970, U.S. population and environmental issues were widely and publicly linked. Probably nowhere was that more true than on college campuses. A college student in the late 1960s and early 1970s would have tended to have seen environmental and population issues as subsets of the same public-policy agenda. In environmental "teach-ins" across America, college students of the time heard repetitious proclamations on the necessity of stopping U.S. population growth in order to reach environmental goals; and the most public of reasons for engaging population issues was to save the environment. The nation’s best-known population group, Zero Population Growth (ZPG) — founded by biologists concerned about the catastrophic impacts of ever more human beings on the biosphere — was outspokenly also an environmental group. And many of the nation’s largest environmental groups had or were considering "population control" as major planks of their environmental prescriptions for America.

As Stewart Udall (Secretary of the Interior during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations) wrote in The Quiet Crisis:

Dave Brower [then executive director of the Sierra Club] expressed the consensus of the environmental movement on the subject in 1966 when he said, ‘We feel you don’t have a conservation policy unless you have a population policy.’ 15

Brower encouraged Stanford University biologist and ZPG co-founder Paul Ehrlich to write The Population Bomb, published in 1968, which surpassed even Rachel Carson’s landmark work Silent Spring to become the best-selling ecology book of the 1960s.16 Ehrlich’s polemic echoed and amplified population concerns earlier raised by two widely read books, both published in 1948: In Our Plundered Planet, Fairfield Osborn, chairman of the Conservation Foundation, lamented that,

The tide of the earth’s population is rising, the reservoir of the earth’s living resources is falling.17

And in Road to Survival, William Vogt, a former Audubon Society official who later became the national director of Planned Parenthood, declared the United States already overpopulated at 147 million.

The Day of Judgment is at hand.18

The seeming consensus among leaders of the nascent environmental movement was paralleled, and bolstered, by widespread agreement among influential researchers and scholars in the natural sciences, such as the University of Georgia’s Eugene P. Odum, a leading ecologist and author of the textbook Fundamentals of Ecology (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, 1971); the University of California-Davis’ Kenneth E. F. Watt, a pioneering systems modeler and author of Principles of Environmental Science (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973); the Conservation Foundation’s Raymond Dasmann, a zoologist and author of The Destruction of California (New York: MacMillan, 1965); the University of California-Berkeley’s Daniel B. Luten, a chemist, natural resource specialist and author of Progress Against Growth (1986); and the University of California-Santa Barbara’s Garrett Hardin, a human ecologist, president of the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and author of the most reprinted article ever — "The Tragedy of the Commons" — in the prestigious journal Science.19 Moreover, the Club of Rome-Massachusetts Institute of Technology project on "the predicament of mankind," published in the provocative 1972 title The Limits to Growth, identified population growth as one of the five basic, interrelated factors driving global environmental, social, and economic systems to eventual collapse.20

Such views were not confined to the United States. In 1972, Great Britain’s leading environmental journal, The Ecologist, published the hard-hitting Blueprint for Survival, supported by 34 distinguished biologists, ecologists, doctors, and economists, including Sir Julian Huxley, Peter Scott, and Sir Frank Fraser-Darling. With regard to population, the Blueprint stated:

First, governments must acknowledge the problem and declare their commitment to ending population growth; this commitment should also include an end to immigration.21

Organizers of the first Earth Day in 1970 note that U.S. population growth was a central theme.22 Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-WI), who is widely considered "the father of Earth Day" looked back 30 years later and said:

Central to the theme of the first Earth Day in 1970 was the understanding that U.S. population growth was a joint partner in the degradation of our nation's environmental resources. Most of us involved in the creation of the modern national environmental movement understood clearly that we could not reach the environmental goals being set at the time if the United States did not quickly start stabilizing its population -- and not repeat the Baby Boom we'd just been through. The good news was that by 1972, the American fertility rate had fallen to just below replacement level. We expected that by the end of the 20th century, U.S. population growth would be winding down, with stabilization near.

The nationwide celebration revealed a massive popular groundswell that helped spur Congress and the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations to enact a host of sweeping environmental laws23 and create a federal bureaucracy to implement and enforce those and others that had been pushed through in the 1960s. Two months after Earth Day, the First National Congress on Optimum Population and Environment convened in Chicago.24 Religious groups — especially the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church — urged for ethical and moral reasons that the federal government adopt policies that would lead to a stabilized U.S. population.

In an unprecedented 1969 speech, President Nixon addressed the nation about problems it would face if U.S. population growth continued unabated:

One of the most serious challenges to human destiny in the last third of this century will be the growth of the population. Whether man’s response to that challenge will be a cause for pride or for despair in the year 2000 will depend very much on what we do today.25

On January 1, 1970, Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA),26 often referred to as the nation’s "environmental Magna Carta."27 In Title I of the act, the "Declaration of National Environmental Policy" began:

The Congress, recognizing the profound impact of man’s activity on the interrelations of all components of the environment, particularly the profound influences of population growth...28

President Nixon and Congress jointly appointed environmental, labor, business, academic, demographic, population, and political representatives to a bipartisan Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, chaired by John D. Rockefeller III. Among its findings in 1972 was that it would be difficult to reach the environmental goals being established at the time unless the United States began stopping its population growth. Rockefeller wrote that "gradual stabilization of our population through voluntary means would contribute significantly to the nation’s ability to solve its problems."29

Environmental advocates envisioned making the transition to U.S. population stabilization within a generation — by the time the college activists of that period had children of their own in college. The Sierra Club, for example, in 1969 urged

the people of the United States to abandon population growth as a pattern and goal; to commit themselves to limit the total population of the United States in order to achieve a balance between population and resources; and to achieve a stable population no later than the year 1990.30

The environmentalists’ population emphasis heavily influenced the news media. Discussions of U.S. population problems were featured regularly on the front pages of newspapers, in magazine cover stories, the nightly TV news and even on network entertainment such as the popular Johnny Carson Show. Suddenly after more than 20 years of the Baby Boom, journalists and politicians were treating population growth as something that could and should be tamed rather than as a natural, inevitable force beyond human and humane control.

End Notes

15 Steward L. Udall. 1963, 1988. The Quiet Crisis and the Next Generation. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books. p. 239.

16 Paul R. Ehrlich. 1968. The Population Bomb. New York: Ballantine Books; Rachel L. Carson. 1962. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

17 Stephen Fox. 1981. John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement, 1890-1975. Boston: Little, Brown. p. 307.

18 Ibid. p. 307.

19 Garrett Hardin. 1968. "The Tragedy of the Commons." Science, 162. December 13. Hardin communicated to one of the authors in 1993 that Science informed him that they had received more reprint permission requests for his paper than any other in the journal’s history.

20 Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, William W. Behrens III. 1972. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Signet.

21 Edward Goldsmith, Robert Allen, Michael Allaby, John Davoll, Same Lawrence (eds.). 1972. A Blueprint for Survival. Penguin Books. p. 48.

22 Gaylord Nelson. 1998. Personal communication. Former U.S. Senator and Wisconsin Governor Nelson is widely credited as the founder of Earth Day.

23 Among the more prominent were the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), Clean Air Act (1970), Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972), Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1972), Clean Water Act (1972; amended in 1974 and 1977), Coastal Zone Management Act (1972), Endangered Species Act (1973), Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976), and Safe Drinking Water Act.

24 Doug LaFollette, et. al. U.S. Sustainable Population Policy Project (USS3P) — Planning Document. Unpublished. June 20, 1998. Doug LaFollette is Wisconsin Secretary of State. Document available from Carole Wilmoth, Executive Committee USS3P, http://www.ecofuture.org/pop/uss3p.html

25 Quote from the frontspiece of the 1972 Rockefeller Commission Report Population and the American Future (note 29).

26 PL 91-190; 83 Stat. 852, 42 U.S.C. 4321.

27 R. B. Smythe. 1997. "The Historical Roots of NEPA." At p. 12 in Ray Clark and Larry Canter (eds.) Environmental Policy and NEPA: Past, Present, and Future. Boca Raton: St. Lucie Press.

28 42 U.S.C. 4331.

29 Commission on Population Growth and the American Future. 1972. Population and the American Future. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. Excerpt above from transmittal letter.

30 Sierra Club Board of Directors policy adopted May 3-4, 1969.